It’s rare that we can pinpoint the drastic changes in the course of history prior to their occurrence, but for Jake Shields and perhaps in the largest context of Mixed Martial Arts, that’s exactly what we can expect from his title defense against former PRIDE Welterweight and Middleweight champion Dan Henderson.
A champion is not often considered a significant underdog, but that’s exactly what Jake Shields will be when he enters Strikeforce’s cage tomorrow night. Listed as a 3-to-1 underdog, Shields may be given the least respect of any major champion in the post-Ultimate Fighter world of Mixed Martial Arts. Randy Couture flirted with being the underdog when he fought Gabriel Gonzaga, and Rich Franklin was likely the underdog when he unsuccessfully defending his title against Anderson Silva, but that may be the entire list. The circumstance highlights the importance of this match to Jake Shields, but for many more reasons, this is a bout in which he must be at his best.
The bulk of the coverage for Saturday’s main event has surrounded Strikeforce Middleweight title challenger, Dan Henderson. It’s not wrong to say that this may be the biggest fight of Henderson’s career, primarily because it will be broadcast on CBS as opposed to Spike or Pay-Per-View, but that is probably making this out to be more significant than it is. Henderson is no stranger to big time matches with title implications, and despite the fact that the match is on broadcast television, it’s possible that it won’t even be his most watched match.
Henderson has even managed to capture the focus of this piece. Realistically, so what if he beats Jake Shields? The odds say that he had better do just that, and he’ll be knocking off one of the least respected champions in MMA. This isn’t Henderson v. Silva, where Henderson was the first fighter in the UFC to take a round from the much-maligned champion. This isn’t Henderson v. Jackson, where Henderson leapt back into the Light Heavyweight division with a spirited but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to unify the PRIDE and UFC championships at 205lbs. This certainly isn’t Henderson v. Wanderlei Silva, where Henderson upset arguably the greatest 205lbs. fighter of all time to win the title. This is Dan Henderson, the big UFC defector and consensus number two Middleweight in the world, taking on a Welterweight who got too big for his Welterweight britches and took full advantage of the shallow waters in the talent pool that is Strikeforce’s Middleweight division.
All of those things, in reality, make this a rather humdrum match for Henderson. They also make this match far and away the most important of Jake Shields’ career.
The theme of this title defense for Shields is vindication. He has not proven to be a big star, yet he is headlining a network television broadcast that represents one of Strikeforce’s most important events in the promotion’s history. Despite having beaten the likes of EliteXC Middleweight Champion Robbie Lawler and Jason “Mayhem” Miller, Shields has the opportunity to prove that he’s more that an opportunistic champion, that he doesn’t belong back in the Welterweight division, that he truly is among the best Middleweights in the world. Perhaps most importantly, Shields has the opportunity to win back fans that he’s turned off with his performances against Lawler and, in particular, Miller.
By the way, exactly how was anyone down on Shields after he made Robbie Lawler submit in the first round? Sure, his stand up is sub-mediocre, but catching a veteran of Lawler’s stature in a guillotine that early in the match and forcing him to quit is nothing short of impressive. But I digress.
Through no fault of Shields’ own, he is now on the same level as Anderson Silva to a certain extent. He’s certainly not as successful a champion as Silva and he certainly doesn’t have the resume that Silva enjoys. However, both men have become reviled for their recent performances. Shields’ grappling-based offense, which he calls American Jiu-Jitsu, foregos almost any attempt to exchange on the feet. In a lot of cases, a grappling clinic can be as exciting as a pugilistic thrashing, but for all of Shields’ accolades as a grappler, he had quite the time with Jason Miller. It should be pointed out that Miller himself is an excellent grappler, but in terms of credentials, he ranks below Shields. Yet, despite their grappling backgrounds, it was Miller who came the closest to finishing Shields in their fight, securing a rear naked choke as time expired in the fourth round of their fight, which Shields ultimately won via unanimous decision.
More is expected of a champion, and it’s unlikely that Shields does not realize that. He, along with Cesar Gracie teammates Nick Diaz and Gilbert Melendez, rule their respective Strikeforce divisions. Unlike Shields, Diaz and Melendez have become known for their entertaining combat styles, featuring boxing, Muay Thai, and Jiu-Jitsu, and exciting fights. At what point will Shields’ take a page out of his teammates’ playbook, so to speak, and will it take a loss to Henderson to do so?
If Shields can beat Henderson and win the crowd, he has the rare opportunity to be the favored champion over his UFC counterpart. Again, that’s not to say that Shields would be favored against Anderson Silva, whose success over grapplers Thales Leites and Demian Maia has been rivaled only by the insomnia-crushing dullness of each encounter. But if Shields can take Henderson down and make him submit in the first round, he’ll not only have beaten Henderson more quickly than Silva, but he’ll accomplish something that Silva has not in his previous three title defenses: stopping his opponent. And no, Patrick Cote’s knee injury while fighting Silva does not count.
On top of it all is the fact that Shields is entering the final fight on his Strikeforce contract. UFC president Dana White has already suggested that he would like to sign Shields, but with Anderson Silva stinking out the joint in the Middleweight division and Georges St. Pierre not exactly dazzling audiences with his affinity for wrestling, White is going to consider Shields with a discerning eye. Even if the UFC chooses not to pursue Shields, a good showing against Henderson will help him in negotiations with Strikeforce. If he beats Henderson, Shields will help his stock a great deal. If he stops Henderson, his stock will soar.
If the mark of a great champion is his ability to perform under duress, then Shields has the ultimate opportunity to prove his merit. The pressure will most certainly be on Jake Shields when he enters the Strikeforce cage. Despite being a heavy underdog, he does have the tools to beat Henderson. How he utilizes those tools will be the story of the match, and may go down in the annals of MMA history as point at which Shields established himself as one of the great Middleweights in the sport. It is a lot to ask of any fighter, but greatness is born under such circumstances.
In any regard, a major chapter in the history of Jake Shields, and perhaps in that of the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, will be written in Nashville, TN.